Vasco Da Gama's heroic voyage: Implications for Sri Lanka: by Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya (Island)

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama's (1469-1524) voyage to India, which is rated as one of the greatest achievements of mankind. It is only comparable to Neil Armstrong's journey to the moon. Da Gama's breakthrough opened up the sea route to India and provided the platform for extensive contact between the Orient (East) and the Occident (West). He gave 'new worlds to the World'. The voyage in 1498 is significant in terms of what it set in train. It turned the Indian Ocean into a Portuguese lake in the century that followed. It short-cut the traditional overland routes to the Orient and undercut in a dramatic fashion huge and established commercial interests. More importantly, it marked the beginning of the Portuguese expansion overseas which spanned five centuries over four continents.

The fleet of the heroic voyage, commanded by Vasco da Gama, culminated and brought to a successful conclusion a long thought out national strategic plan. It included 170 men, some who had previously sailed with Bartholeme Dias to the Cape of Good Hope. One in three of the crew were fated to die of scurvy during the voyage. A dozen convicts were included in the crew to be at the Captain's disposal for any particularly dangerous tasks. Vasco da Gama captained the Sao Gabriel, Paulo da Gama (his brother) the Sao Raphael, Nicolau Coelho the Berrio, and Goncalo Nunes a supply ship. Vasco da Gama was particularly suited to lead the expedition. He was a fidalgo ('aristocrat') who combined the personal qualities required for such an expedition: loyal, fearless, brutal and violent. This assignment could not have been fulfilled by a gentle leader; da Gama was made to order.

Da Gama's achievement was turned into a compelling and unforgettable story in The Lusiads (Os Lusiadas) by Luis de Camoes (1524-80), who was born on the day that da Gama died. Camoes had a classical education in the University of Coimbra. He fought as a young soldier in Morocco, to learn the Moorish character and methods of war, where he lost an eye. He was imprisoned in Lisbon for partaking in a street fight and was released on condition that he served the Portuguese Crown in India. In 1553 Camoes sailed for India, from Lisbon, and learned the lure of the sea. In 1556 he sailed further east to Macao. Two years later he embarked on his journey back to Lisbon, but was shipwrecked and lost all his possessions except for his manuscript of The Lusiads. Camoes was a scholar and a soldier, who travelled the world for his King, but returned to poverty, blindness and a posthumous apotheosis.

Camoes had the advantage of dealing with recorded history of which he was in part a witness. His experience and knowledge gave him an unique opportunity to write The Lusiads, which symbolizes the tradition of Portugal. The Lusiads was modelled on the classical epics of Homer and Virgil. Camoes's goal was to write a poem which should rival Virgil's Aeneid. He has left his personal impress on the Lusiads which does not appear as an imitation of the Aeneid. The Aenied is called after a man, Aeneas. The Lusiads is called after a people (The Sons of Lusus). The Portuguese were believed to be descendants of Lusus, (the eponymous hero of Lusitania), the mythical first settler in Portugal.

The sense of "continuation" between the Aeneid and The Lusiads provides a vehicle for Camoes to establish himself as the Portuguese Homer and also the Portuguese Virgil, the two supreme literary figures of Greek and Roman culture. In epic, lyric and heroic poetry, Camoes was outstanding. The Lusiads has historic relevance to Sri Lanka, (unlike the Aeneid or the Iliad), as the event narrated played a part in shaping Sri Lankan history and socioculture. It seems to have influenced Kustantinu Hatana (a war ballad about the Portuguese General Constantine de Sa) written by Dom Jeronimo Alagiy-avanna, the greatest Sinhalese poet of the 15th/16th centuries, and the last of the Classical Sinhalese poets.

The first verse of The Lusiads refers to Taprobane as Sri Lanka was known at that time.

Armas, e os Baroes assinalados,
Que da occidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda alem da Taprobana,
Em perigos, e guerra esforcados
Mais, do que promettia forca humana:
E enter gente remota edificarao
Novo reino, que tanto sublimarao:

Arms and the renowned heroes
Who from the western Lusitanian shore
On seas never before navigatd
Passing even beyond Taprobane,
In dangers, and forced wars,
More, of what promised the human force,
And among remote people, raised

A new kingdom that so exalted: [my translation]

The Portuguese started to explore the east beyond India from their base in India. They established trading posts and fortresses in Sri Lanka from 1517 onwards. Their first visit to Sri Lanka, in 1505, was accidental as they were windswept into Galle harbour during their voyage to the Maldive Islands. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to make extensive contact with the Sri Lankans. Only European ambassadors, traders, travellers and seamen had visited Sri Lanka prior to the Portuguese colonisers. Interaction between the Portuguese and Sri Lankans has left several sociocultural imprints on the island. The Portuguese stamp is particularly strong in Sri Lankan languages, religion, education, administration, food, dress, names, art, music and dance. The evolution of a Portuguese-based Creole, (Sri Lanka Portuguese Creole), Roman Catholicism, Portuguese surnames (e.g. Perera, Silva, Pieris), Portuguse personal names (Pransisku, Peduru, Juvan), Portuguese titles (Sinno, Dona, Don), Indo-Portuguese furniture, baila music etc are all results of this interaction.

The Portuguese were displaced from their coastal colonies by the Dutch in 1658. The British took over these colonies in 1796 and eventually colonized the entire island until independence in 1948. The Portuguese era marked the beginning of modern Sri Lanka. It changed Sri Lanka's orientation away from India and gave the island a distinct identity moulded by 450 years of western influence. Paradoxically, the Portuguese imprint appears to be the most deep rooted in Sri Lanka, despite contact with two other European powers who colonized at a later date.